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CUP, THE (Phörpa)(director/writer: Khyentse Norbu; cinematographer: Paul Warren; editor: John Scott; cast: Orgyen Tobgyal (Geko), Neten Chokling (Lodo), Jamyang Lodro (Orgyen), Lama Chonjor (Abbot), Godu Lama (Old Lama), Thinley Nudi (Tibetan Layman); Runtime: 94; Fine Line Features; 1999)
“If all you see is a bunch of kids watching a soccer game on satellite TV, then I think you missed the film’s message.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

First time director/writer Khyentse Norbu has created a pleasingly gentle comedy with pressing political undertones. It is genuinely acted by the nonprofessional cast living in the monastery, presumably playing roles of themselves. The film is set in an exiled Tibetan monastery in northern India. Khyentse Norbu, the Bhutanese-born lama, has more in mind than just making pictures like his favorite director Ozu. He seems more intent in telling about overcoming hatred in oneself, which is deemed as the Buddhist way to overcome all one’s enemies. Norbu was recognized at age seven as the reincarnation of a 19th-century Buddhist guru and got his movie feet wet in Bertolucci’s “Little Buddha,” a film he supposedly helped influence.

The Cup was a crowd favorite at the Toronto Film Festival, which is easy to see why. It’s a film that tries very hard to bring the stern monastic world of the monks together with a more lighthearted secular approach to the modern conditions the monks are now faced with. The story is a true one which should add relevancy to this very human, amusing and poignant tale.

Soccer is the modern temptation the would-be monks are exposed to in India and this little rascal of a kid, who was born in India and blessed with a huge personality, Orgyen, is a soccer fanatic. Orgyen is first seen in the dusty monastery yard playing a mock soccer game with some of the other kids as they kick a Coca-Cola can around, which is used in place of a ball. Underneath Orgyen’s saffron robe he wears a jersey of his favorite soccer player, while in his room there are pictures of the many soccer players he idolizes; Orgyen is much like other teenagers around the world who hero worship their favorite athlete. Orgyen is so taken with the 1998 World Cup matches that he forgets his monastery chores and is disciplined by Geko, the severe but caring monk in charge of the boys. Orgyen even chatters to others about the games during a prayer session. Orgyen also sneaks into the village at night to watch the soccer events live on TV and roots for France since they are the only Western country to openly support a free Tibet, and since Tibet has no national team under China’s dominance, anyhow.

The Coca-Cola can serves as a symbolic link between the secular and monastic worlds as Geko retrieves the can and eventually gives it to an eccentric lama, given to making predictions based on his Buddhist knowledge. The lama finds a use for the can in his shrine room, where it becomes transformed into the sacred object holding one of the spiritual candles used in prayer.

The film’s drama builds as two youngsters who are related and escaped together from Tibet with the help of one of the adult members of the Tibetan community, arrive in the monastery and are ordained to be monks. The sage-like abbot generously greets them to his impoverished monastery, and allows one of the poor youngsters to keep the watch his mother gives to the monastery to help them pay for her son’s stay.

The World Cup match-final between France and Brazil is such a big event for Orgyen that he schemes to come up with a way of watching the game at the monastery on satellite TV, reasoning that it was not the game Geko was concerned about when he disciplined him but that he was caught sneaking out. Orgyen was disciplined to do kitchen work and threatened with expulsion if he sneaks out again. Orgyen tells the kindly old-fashioned abbot that his plan is to get all the monks to contribute some money so that they can rent the satellite in town and set it up on their roof, and thereby everyone in the monastery could watch it together. The dramatics are provided when the new boy’s watch is used as part of the payment. Orgyen, while watching the game, realizes how much the watch means to the youngster and during the game goes back to his room to collect the stuff his mother gave him so that he can buy the watch back. Geko will join him, wondering why he’s not watching the game, since he made such a big fuss about it.

It’s a small but telling story, more European in flavor than American, but deserving of much praise for its heartening universal human message. The film itself makes no splash in a cinematic sense, as its story is told in a conventional art-house style. But this film is more than merely an inspirational story, it is about a culture and people currently persecuted and threatened with genocide. The noble Tibetan answer is to fight back as humanly as possible. This film utters such a human cry against oppression and even in the lighthearted style that it was presented, its political message about the meaning of freedom is nevertheless an urgent one. If all you see is a bunch of kids watching a soccer game on satellite TV, then I think you missed the film’s message.

REVIEWED ON 10/23/2000 GRADE: B+

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”